By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska lawmakers began debate Thursday on whether to ban workplace discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, and two Republicans immediately launched a filibuster to try to kill the bill.
GAY RIGHTS: Lincoln residents held a vigil after a hate crime was reported several years ago.
Sen. Danielle Conrad, D-Lincoln, sponsored the bill, which would apply to public employees, government contractors and businesses with at least 15 employees. She tried to persuade her colleagues to join the other half of states that have adopted similar legislation.
“I believe no one should be fired for who they are,” she argued on the floor of the Legislature. “No one should be fired for who they love. It’s a matter of justice.”
She pointed to the progress that has been made in gay rights since lawmakers last considered such a law in 2007: The repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the 17 states that allow same-sex marriages, Grand Island’s ordinance protecting city workers from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and Omaha’s ordinance protecting gay and transgender people from workplace discrimination.
Last year, Nebraska lawmakers surprised some when they voted 29-5 to approve an amendment barring employers that hire prisoners from a state work camp from discriminating against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people.
“We are making unmistakable progress in this country and in this state,” Conrad said. “This legislation is not about special rights for anyone, it’s about equal rights for everyone.”
She said a poll of Nebraskans found 64 percent support the bill. According to a memo provided by her office, the Anzalone Liszt Grove Research conducted a statewide survey of 600 likely voters by telephone in January. The poll was paid for by a coalition of supporters of the bill, including Equal Nebraska and Human Rights Campaign.
“The last time we saw numbers like that we moved a pipeline,” Conrad said.
And while in an effort to clean up obsolete sections of law, the bill drafters included language in the bill that would repeal a section of the law protecting members of the Communist Party, too, Conrad filed an amendment striking that section, saying it was causing confusion and distraction.
“We shouldn’t engage in McCarthyism,” she said.
The bill – which will be Conrad’s last as a lawmaker – was passionately supported by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, who became emotion while recalling how his late mother “kicked me out of bed and said, ‘Now you get down there and you fight for LB485.”
He said his Lutheran mother and Catholic father taught him nothing was more important than fighting intolerance and discrimination. He cited Pope Francis’s recent comments on the topic, saying, “Who am I to judge?”
“Never ever cower to intolerance,” he said. “No matter what the institution is.”
His family was in the clothing business, and recalled many gay people in the industry who feared losing their jobs if their sexual orientation were known.
“It’s real. It’s not feigned,” Ashford said.
Sen. Mark Christensen, R-Imperial, admitted he was launching a filibuster, saying his constituents oppose the bill.
“Christ tells us to love the person but hate the sin,” Christensen said. “He didn’t tell us to love the person, love the sin.”
He said he didn’t want to get into an ugly debate over the issue, and then quoted from a study of identical twins that concluded homosexuality is not genetic but can be caused by “non-sharing events” or personal response to exposure to pornography, sexual abuse and common environmental factors.
Conrad said all major medical associations reject that point of view, and warned those watching the debate they “may hear a lot of hate” and “junk science” but assured them “that will be nothing more than a dark footnote in a chapter on our civil rights.”
Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, D-Omaha, said passing the law is not only the right thing to do morally, but also to prevent young people from leaving the state for more tolerant pastures. The state will spend $1.1 billion to attract businesses in the next six years, he said, but will struggle to keep young people if it doesn’t remove “barriers like this.”
He said he received a few emails from fellow Catholics who said such a law would violate their religious freedom.
“Clearly theirs is a very deeply perverted view of the Catholic faith,” Nordquist said. “I don’t now how you can call yourself a Christian or a Catholic and think that.”
Sen. Annette Dubas, D-Fullerton, talked about her gay brother who doesn’t live in Nebraska because he doesn’t feel welcome here.
“It’s not a lifestyle choice, it’s who they are,” she said.
Sen. Amanda McGill, D-Lincoln, said many of her gay friends have left the state, but she’s encouraged by the change she’s seen, citing the uproar Wednesday in Nebraska over a high school student who was nearly banned from reciting a speech about gender identity. The Nebraska School Activities Association reversed its decision before day’s end.
“We need to show leadership,” she said. “No one should be discriminated against because of who they are or who they love.”
Sen. Bill Avery, D-Lincoln, said 95 percent of the emails he’s received on the bill have been supportive.
Sen. Ernie Chambers, I-Omaha, who has introduced similar bills over his 40-year career accused opponents of the bill of “hiding behind religion.”
“These are people, and that ends the discussion,” he said.
Sen. Beau McCoy, R-Omaha, said all the lawmakers are opposed to discrimination and “believe in loving our fellow man,” but the bill would force Nebraskans to violate tenets of their faith.
“Similar laws have been used not as a shield against discrimination, but a sword to punish business owners and people of faith,” he said, noting that when Conrad first introduced the bill in committee last year, she said businesses don’t have the same rights as individuals.
“That troubles me a great deal and I dare say it would trouble an awful lot of Nebraskans to hear that,” McCoy said.
But Conrad defended the premise, saying a Taco Bell doesn’t have the same standing as an individual. She said Nebraska can offer as many tax incentives as possible, but will never “attract a big fish like Facebook or Google” if it’s not inclusive.
Christensen said one of his neighbors put up a “gay symbol” and he questioned the need for it.
“I don’t put up a heterosexual symbol. I just am who I am,” he said. “If this isn’t an agenda pushing special things, why do they have to advertise it?”
But he said his neighbor’s sexuality “made me no difference” and he still talks to him daily. He said people have jumped all over him and been nasty and intolerant because he opposes the bill, “so intolerance goes both ways.”
Conrad noted that while discrimination is wrong, no matter where it occurs, for political, pragmatic reasons she expanded the state employment law’s original religious exemption. An amendment broadens the religious exemptions in the law to include religious schools, colleges, universities and other educational institutions.
Sen. Jim Smith, R-Papillion, said while he appreciates Conrad’s compassion and the spirit in which she brought the bill, he opposes the bill because it would be another burden on businesses. He said most businesses with 15 to 100 employees don’t have a human resources department and will have to spend more money on legal counsel.
But Sen. Burke Harr, D-Omaha, an attorney, said if it’s a burden not to discriminate,
“that’s a burden we should be willing to take,” noting that “not one person has been sued” since Omaha passed its ban.
“This is good business,” he said. “Society is changing. You can fight it, but you’re on the wrong side.”
Sen. Bill Kintner, R-Papillion, accused supporters of the bill of trying to shame people who support religious freedom.
“If you’re a Christian bookstore, you want people that reflect your Christian values,” he said.
He also questioned how people would know someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity and called the bill “an attorney’s dream” that might dissuade people from expanding their businesses to more than 15 employees. Conrad, an attorney, offered Kintner “a little free legal advice” – “Don’t fire someone just because they’re gay.”
Nordquist got Kintner to admit he supports the current law banning discrimination based on race, age and sex.
Some opponents of the bill bridled at the way supporters characterized them. McCoy said most of the harsh rhetoric was coming from bill supporters. Sen. Lydia Brasch, R-Bancroft, said just because her side disagrees with the bill
“doesn’t mean that we hate anyone.”
Sen. Ken Haar, D-Malcolm, said that was said by St. Augustine in 424 A.D., and then during the Spanish Inquisition, “where they loved people so much that they killed ’em.”
“This kind of stuff is why I have stepped away from organized religion,” he said.
Chambers told opponents to get their noses out of crotches.
“Hell for a busybody is a place where you have to mind your own business,” he said.
The Legislature adjourned without voting until Monday, when the filibuster likely continues, but Conrad said she’s confident a majority of lawmakers support the bill.
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